Want to earn continuing education credit for this article? Learn more.

Considered by many healthcare practitioners to be one of the most challenging health conditions to work with, different forms of cancer are increasingly affecting the world’s population. Although Western medicine has made great strides in treating cancer, many believe that alternative therapies play an important role in their healing process. Because of the caution that some treatments may encourage the spread of cancer cells, various alternative health practitioners have taken a hands-off approach to cancer in favor of safety. However, therapists trained in aromatherapy offer a predominantly safe method to help a person battling cancer.

Over the years, a bodyworker’s role in working on people with cancer has shifted from a distinct prohibition to an emerging specialty. While no respectful practice should suggest that their healing method supersedes a physician’s advice, pairing certain complementary health approaches with medical treatment can have tremendous positive benefits to the patient. As one of the more researched modalities, experts believe the ancient art of aromatherapy can be highly effective in helping manage the restlessness, anxiety and stress associated with conventional cancer treatment. However, as with anything of strong therapeutic value, there are some unique potential interactions between the use of essential oils and traditional cancer treatment.

When it comes to essential oils, Cherie Perez, a supervising research nurse in M. D. Anderson’s Department of Genitourinary Medical Oncology who teaches aromatherapy to cancer patients, says they have been shown to have tremendous soothing and stress-relieving capabilities. According to Perez, “The most common complaint I have from [cancer] patients is with anxiety or sleeplessness.” Perez has discovered that when patients are relaxed they sleep more comfortably, further enabling their bodies to heal.
Besides surgery, enduring either of the two prominent treatments for cancer – radiation or chemotherapy – is always a challenge. In fact, it is common for people receiving radiation and/or chemotherapy to have severe side effects and even long lasting health implications from these treatments. Although aromatherapy can be a soothing complement to cancer treatment, assuring it is safely applied must always be a practitioner’s priority.


Aromatherapists Jane Buckle, Ann Percival and Pam Conrad are registered nurses who have studied the impact different essential oils have on those undergoing cancer treatment. These experts concluded that, because essential oils can compete with cell receptor sites utilized in chemotherapy, aromatherapy application should adhere to the following guidelines to ensure safety:

  • Essential oils can be applied in massage up to two days before a chemotherapy treatment.
  • Essential oils should be avoided for nine to ten days after chemotherapy administration.
  • During a chemotherapy regimen, keep the dose of essential oils low by using only two drops per ounce of carrier oil or lotion.
  • While inhalation to counteract nausea accompanying chemotherapy is acceptable, there are provisions for peppermint and ginger.
  • Peppermint can be inhaled unless the client has cardiac problems or is on the chemotherapy drug 5FU, since peppermint enhances its absorption fourfold.
  • Although ginger is another good essential oil choice for relieving nausea, it can reduce clotting time.


Even though several clinical studies have failed to report any improvements by using aromatherapy during radiation therapy, there are still a substantial number of people who believe otherwise. Despite this discrepancy, several wellness centers across the U.S. employ the benefits of essential oils for those undergoing cancer treatments.
Since one of the prominent concerns about radiation therapy is excessive burning and skin problems, applying anything to the skin should be carefully evaluated. As is the case with aromatherapy, topical application of phototoxic oils can be detrimental to those doing radiation therapy or those with skin cancer.

Stedman’s Medical Dictionary defines photosensitization as, “sensitization of the skin to light, usually due to the action of certain drugs, plants, or other substances.” Phototoxic oils cause light-related irritation or darkening of the skin when exposed to certain types of light. For a person about to be exposed to the intense rays of radiation therapy, it is important to avoid phototoxic oils so that you do not worsen skin sensitivity. The more commonly known phototoxic oils include:

  • Lemon
  • Bergamot
  • Angelica
  • Lime
  • Grapefruit
  • Orange
  • Mandarin
  • Tagete
  • Verbena

It may be possible to safely use citrus oils with a person undergoing radiation therapy. By choosing a steam-distilled oil, the phototoxic elements can be avoided. If unsure, check with the essential oil manufacturer about your chosen oil’s phototoxicity.

In addition, certain essential oils can irritate or sensitize the skin regardless of light exposure. Commonly known sensitizing oils include:

  • Cinnamon bark
  • Fig leaf
  • Verbena
  • Caraway
  • Dill seed
  • Peppermint
  • Ylang ylang

In addition to considering the phototoxicity and sensitivity to the previously listed oils, a good rule of thumb to follow for those receiving radiation therapy is as follows:
Keep the concentration of essential oils low by using only two drops per ounce of carrier oil or lotion.

The more we learn about aromatherapy, the more we realize how strong essential oils can be. Bodyworkers incorporating aromatherapy into their practice can offer people undergoing cancer treatment a better experience and may even improve their ability to defeat their cancer. While this prospect excites those destined to heal, make certain you are being safe with those undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy. Even though aromatherapy poses little risk to spreading cancer, it is a potent application – and safety should always be a practitioner’s first therapeutic consideration.

Earn continuing education credit for this article contained in our Cancer & Massage series. Click here to enroll.

Recommended Study:

Aromatherapy Essentials

More Information:

Cancer: Description and Massage Precautions


Enteen, Shellie, BA, LMT, Aromatherapy for Clients With Special Needs, Massage Today, January 2007.

Osborn, Carrie, Essential Oils Simply Complex, Massage and Bodywork, December/January 2006.

www.associatedcontent.com, Aromatherapy and Phototoxic Essential Oils, Associated Content Inc., 2008.

www.cancerwise.org, Aromatherapy Soothes Cancer Patients, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, 2008.

www.cancerwise.org, Exercise Safety When Using Aromatherapy, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, 2008.